The party wants the public broadcaster to stop its retrenchment process, but if it cannot significantly cut costs somewhere else, it will not be able to pay salaries
The ANC this week allegedly warned the SABC that its decision to lay off employees would embarrass the governing party and could cost it votes during local elections next year.
City Press has reliably learnt from various sources that the cash-strapped public broadcaster’s bosses met with party bosses at the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters and were quizzed about the plan to retrench 600 full-time employees and terminate the contracts of 1 200 freelance staff.
This is the second time in fewer than 24 months that the SABC’s attempt to cut its wage bill is running into political resistance.
Last year’s attempt to lay off 981 employees was abandoned after massive criticism from labour and governing party figures.
Earlier this year, the SABC got a government bailout with the condition to cut costs, but is now facing opposition from ANC leaders.
SABC insiders say the corporation would need an estimated annual injection of R1 billion from the state to maintain the salary bill if it does not proceed with the staff cuts.
The retrenchment talks, facilitated by the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, started on Wednesday, but have been postponed until the middle of this month.
The Luthuli House powwow
According to sources with knowledge of the meeting, SABC chief executive officer (CEO) Madoda Mxakwe and board chairperson Bongumusa Makhathini were on Tuesday called to Luthuli House, where they had to explain the decision to retrench staff.
“They were told that their decision to lay off the workers was not a wise move. They were told that the move would embarrass the ANC, which will affect the party during the [2021 local government] elections,” said a source.
City Press has been told that the ANC was represented by ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, Deputy Communications Minister Pinky Kekana and SA Communist Party (SACP) first deputy general secretary Solly Mapaila.
Kekana, who is said to have initially supported the necessary cost-cutting preconditions when the department of communications and SABC management negotiated the bailout with Treasury, was now singing a different tune.
“She told Mxakwe and Makhathini that she had received some complaints from some SABC board members [about the retrenchments],” said a person privy to this week’s developments.
Mapaila also reminded the SABC leadership that the SACP had fought alongside them when they went to Treasury asking for the R3.2 billion bailout last year, a source said.
It is understood that Mxakwe made a presentation of a skills audit report and the already adopted turnaround strategy.
He also told the ANC leadership that the current management inherited a bloated SABC, which required at least R270 million to pay salaries every month.
Mxakwe is said to have reminded the ANC members that they were fully aware that the Treasury-approved turnaround strategy emphasised a need to reduce the number of employees to avoid a total collapse of the broadcaster.
“He told them the SABC has already disposed of noncore assets and renegotiated expensive contracts with the aim of cuttings costs. He said the retrenchments had to take place to avoid the total collapse of the broadcaster,” the source revealed.
ANC: We were stating our views
ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe confirmed the meeting took place, saying the party was approached by the SABC and not the other way around.
“It is unfortunate that a private meeting was leaked to the media with distortions. The meeting was initiated by the SABC board chairperson, and he was accompanied by the CEO and the chief operating officer,” said Mabe.
He added that the ANC delegation’s input was led by the chair of the national executive committee subcommittee on communications.
“As an important stakeholder, being the governing party, we were pleased that we had an opportunity to state our views,” he said.
Mabe said the delegation presented their turnaround strategy and one striking mention the SABC made was that it did not have a good sales team for advertising.
“We asked them to reconsider the retrenchments on the basis that if they improved advertising, they could afford it. We impressed on them to reconsider their retrenchment plans and prepare the SABC to launch digital terrestrial television, after which, according to their initial plans, 18 channels would be available free to air to all South Africans.”
The SABC had also been encouraged to “immediately” work with government to launch and promote more television channels focusing on areas such as health, as the country grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as education to address the backlog caused by the forced interruption of schooling.
“We will encourage government to work with the SABC board and management to launch digital terrestrial television, and retrain and reskill staff,” said Mabe.
Broadcaster can't avoid retrenchments
SABC spokesperson Mmoni Seapolelo confirmed the discussion, saying that the public broadcaster was in talks with various stakeholders, including labour, business, civil society and political parties.
She said the public broadcaster was sharing progress on the implementation of its turnaround plan, the utilisation of the bailout funds, the new target operating model and other related matters.
“The SABC has already embarked on several cost-cutting measures, but there is simply no way a complete organisation-wide restructuring and reduction of positions can be avoided. With that, the issue of possible retrenchments is regrettably contemplated,” she said.
She said the SABC, which is estimating a revenue loss of R2 billion for the 2019/20 financial year, could not sustain a wage bill that was 43% of the SABC’s operational expenditure.
The current process was in line with the organisation’s turnaround strategy and top operating model, which will ensure the organisation “has a fit-for-purpose structure”.
The plan, which was a collaborative effort with the department of communications and Treasury, contained “well-considered and agreed to key actions”.
These included enhancing revenue generation and addressing the SABC’s main costs, such as the compensation of employees, content acquisition, signal distribution and digital migration.
Seapolelo said the SABC has ensured that the bailout received was used in line with the key priorities agreed to in the strategy drawn up by all the parties.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown that was implemented to mitigate it had also hit advertising revenue, and the SABC’s public service mandate had compelled it to displace revenue-generating programming to accommodate announcements and live media briefings.
“These are now carried live on SABC’s free-to-air television channel SABC3, the SABC News Channel, radio stations and digital platforms. The SABC is not remunerated for this,” she said.
The skills audit
An SABC skills audit report that was shared with the ANC leadership this week paints a mixed picture of the state of the national broadcaster’s skill levels.
The report reveals:
- Almost 800 employees were mismatched to their job profile qualifications.
- One member of the executive and seven general managers do not meet the minimum requirements regarding qualifications for their positions.
- A total of 109 employees did not indicate any entry of a formal qualification.
- The SABC had no proper filing system and did not keep requisite records for its 3 200 employees.
- At least 1 000 employees meet and exceed their job profile.
- The SABC has 76% of staff who exceed their position in the experience required, which confirms the high experience and retention level.
- The SABC’s problems were not limited to bloated staff, but some of the broadcast equipment was so old that parts could not be obtained to repair it when damaged.
Television equipment and related technology at the studios in Auckland Park have deteriorated since 2009, putting live broadcasts at risk of going awry.
“This risk directly impacts on the SABC’s revenue related to sponsorships and advertisements.
“In addressing this risk, the SABC has initiated a project to replace the broadcast equipment with state-of-the-art broadcasting technologies,” the report says.
Seapolelo confirmed the skills audit had provided the organisation with a sense of the human capital capacity that the SABC possesses in terms of skills competencies, experience and qualifications.